“Saving Our Selves” Coalition Doing the Hard Work in the Gulf States

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Jeannette Foreman: In Alabama and Mississippi, there were small communities as wiped out as those in New Orleans but they weren’t being covered. Grassroots organizations got together five or six days after Katrina hit when the alarm went out, screams for help from relatives and friends and co-workers from that area saying, “help, help, help.  We have no food, no water or electricity.  We haven’t seen the Red Cross,we haven’t seen anything.”  These groups quickly convened because they were accustomed to working together and said we have to find a way to service these people. They had started working as best they could with the little churches that they could walk to because no one had transportation.   That started the process. 
Latasha Brown is the visionary who put this whole thing together and is operating as the chair of the Saving Our Selves Coalition.  The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement was one of those seven core organizations that started planning and now it’s swelled to over 120  churches and organizations, big and small. 
The way it’s structured is that the coalition put together four major distribution services, warehouses and so forth, so that they could send goods and services and people, staged from there, and then send the volunteers and the food and the necessities and the doctors out to the satellite places: churches, community centers, places where these grassroots organizations could operate and actually service the people.
So it’s been  these operations that have been so well-coordinated that it has been recognized nationally and internationally.  The four major locations are Montgomery, Mobile, Birmingham and Selma. 
From those sites, we go all up into Mississippi, the Delta, the Black Belt region, which was absolutely devastated.  We just put together a team of doctors  to go into those areas, starting from Jackson and  then into our site in Biloxi, and from there  to the Mississippi Delta, and into the small communities like Moss Point doing triage and assessments and dispensing medicine. 
This is the area where you have all the chemical plants and there are high incidences of respiratory problems, diabetes, high blood pressure and ailments of that nature.  In many cases, the chemical plants and waste disposal spilled over into the area where the people were living.  It’s an environmental issue, and a big one.  We’ve had two people die because they just had cuts on them that couldn’t be attended to and became infected from the water where sewage had spilled.
We’ve been getting wonderful responses from the BBC and from progressives all over the United States.  They recognize that this is an opportunity to strengthen the grassroots organizations because even if the Red Cross was doing a good job, it’s temporary and they are already starting to pull out, even here in Atlanta. 
We’re real proud of the whole idea that we’re working together and passing it on.  The big churches are working with the little churches.  The big organizations working with the little ones.  It’s really the way it used to be in days of old. The things that allowed us to survive this long. 

Cliff Albright is Director of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in Selma, Alabama and is coordinating the Southeast organization
 “There are a couple of coalitions going on.  I coordinate the Selma chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.  Our chapter and other organizations form a coalition called the SOS (Saving Our Selves) Coalition.  In addition to ourselves, there’s a coalition in Jackson that includes the Nation of Islam, the NAACP and others.  They are very much involved in assisting the dislocated, providing food and supplies to some of the towns surrounding the Jackson area.
Our efforts in Selma are focused on the Mississippi Gulf Coast area, Biloxi, Gulfport, Moss Point.
We have a point person in Mobile, Alabama who coordinates the warehouse.  We’ll stock up there and send out supplies that we receive.  We get food and supplies to communities that have not received a lot of attention.  Even though you may see a lot of reporters, FEMA and a National Guard presence in some of these communities, you still have our folks, poor black communities, who were still not getting attention. And that’s where we focused our efforts.  Wherever we go in those communities we try to find whoever it is who was already doing things, usually a church or community organizations, and we hook up with those activists and build a network.  We talk to them first to find the drop-off points.. 
In addition to food and supplies, we also assist with shelters.  We have two shelters here in Selma, one that was an immediate temporary shelter and one that was a long-term facility, a nursing home that’s been converted by a church.  It’s well-suited for long term housing needs. 
We have another shelter in Montgomery and another in Birmingham. 
In addition to the food and shelter, we’ve tried to move into the medical services.  Setting up medical clinics.  We did one last Saturday in Escatawpa, Mississippi, which is a small town between Moss Point and Pascagula.  That was with a local nurse and doctors and medics from Veterans for Peace who we’ve coordinated with.  They came in and did screening and assessing the situation and providing care when possible.  That’s going to be ongoing for about two weeks in Pascagula, Escatawpa and Long Beach.  We plan to go to each place at least twice with this moving clinic.  Again, that’s because even though there was a National Guard medical unit in the area, they were not getting to those areas.  There was a Red Cross medical unit that would pop up, but it was spotty. You never knew where it was going to be. In fact, one of the main complaints that the black community has had is that we don’t know where these services were going to be.  They change from day-to-day.  By the time we find out and start to line up, that’s when the line is cut off. We’ve heard this in a couple of locations, so our point was to have something stationary within walking distance of those without a whole lot of means.  Every day something new comes up and we just try to meet the increasing need.
The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement has chapters in Selma, Jackson, Mississippi, Atlanta, Birmingham and we’ve got people in other parts of Mississippi and Louisiana.  What’s being built is a coalition of coalitions.  By having chapters in all of these areas, our organization is able to play the role of bridge and provide continuity.  We’re able to communicate through our own organizational networks.  Most of the original work came through nonprofit organizations.  For example, in the Alabama coalition we’ve got the Community Empowerment Project which is out of Mobile, and the Alabama Coalition on Black Civic Participation.  But once you get into the affected communities, it’s usually the churches we’re working with.
During the week we’re coordinating for resources, getting money and supplies, trying to build up the infrastructure that’s necessary, like a warehouse, transportation and things of that nature.  We receive trucks and direct them to where the need is.  There are people who are watching the news, want to get involved, but have no idea about where to send aid.  For example, there was a church in Annapolis, Maryland that collected supplies and we were able to direct them as to where to drop it off.  We’re able to connect the dots. 
(The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement Brooklyn Chapter has already sent a couple of truckloads.)
Please make mention of the fact that this is a long-term process.   We’ve already seen signs that the goodwill that was out there immediately after the hurricane is starting to dry up.  For example we contacted Wal-Mart to get some prescriptions filled because they had been doing free prescriptions. and the local store said, “it’s been four weeks, they should have gotten everything taken care of by now.” A lot of these special programs, exceptions and things people have been advertising and publicizing in the early days are drying up quickly.  Especially when the national attention leaves, you’ve got the same local folks who have been discriminating against our folks before the hurricane, are going back to their regular ways.  So it’s very important that people be aware of that and not get disaster-fatigue.
Long-term needs are housing and medical health issues.  Medical is a critical thing because you’re talking about folks who were sick to begin with.  Communities in Mississippi and Louisiana that were already referred to as “cancer alley,” because of the presence of all the chemical and oil facilities down there.  So when we do these medical clinics, not all of the health issues are directly related to the hurricane. In addition to the serious rashes from the water, a large number of the needs that people are expressing at these clinics are chronic illnesses; diabetes, cancer, asthma, all these illnesses they had before the hurricane are still with them.  So the challenge is how do we meet these needs when the pharmacy they used to go to is no longer there.  When the money they used to have to get their medicine is no longer there.  This is not to mention the new health issues that are going to come out of this.  The respiratory problems, people are still living in houses that have mold and somewhere down the line we’re going to see new respiratory issues.  Housing and health and a living income are going to be long-term problems.
How do we organize communities to be a part of the rebuilding process.  You’ve got a new Diaspora that’s been created.  How do we organize these communities, whether they are in New York or in Iowa or in Arkansas.  How do we organize folks so that they stay connected to their communities and have some kind of say in these contracts that are being given out left and right.
We don’t just want to be a relief agency.  We want to help folks be organized wherever they are so that they can have a say in the communities that they eventually want to go back to.
Trying to stay in touch with people has been complicated by a turf battle with the Red Cross because they do not like to share information.  So part of our demands is the right to access information about where our people are.  So we’ve put out the call, if you are an evacuee or are related to one, please contact us so that we have your information and we can build a Survivor’s Council as some are beginning to call it, build a network of folks so that we can disseminate information.  We have a Web manager and somebody else who deals with databases, but down here everyone is doing multiple roles, we’re trying to build infrastructure and driving to locations and doing hands-on things on a regular basis so if we could have someone else who was distant from the day-to-day operations who could handle that, it would be a big help.
Checks may be made to SOS Coaltion and mailed to:
S.O.S. Coalition
925 B. Peachtree Street, N.W.
Suite 307
Atlanta, Georgia 30312
or Visit the Web site:  www.sosafterkatrina.org and send a secure donation online.